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Near Death Experience: an interview with Yoshitaka Hirota

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  • Reported by Jeriaska
  • Contributors: Takahiro Yamamoto
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Yoshitaka Hirota began his career in music as a sound designer for Square. He worked as a synthesizer operater and sound arranger, contributing to such classic titles as Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, and Parasite Eve. As a composer, he has undertaken the musical scores for Sacnoth's trilogy of Shadow Hearts games and the arrange album titled "near death experience." His newest album is a collaboration with vocalist Rekka Kitakiri called Kinema in the Hall. Today Square Haven talks with the composer on the subject of his career in game music.
This interview is available in Japanese. 日本語で...

Yoshitaka Hirota began as a sound effects engineer for Squaresoft. His first projects as a composer came after the he left Square in 1998 and collaborated with Yasunori Mitsuda on the scores for Bomberman 64 and two Biohazard 2 drama albums. He has since gone on to achieve widespread popularity as the central composer behind Sacnoth's trilogy of Shadow Hearts games. Heading his own music company, called Twin Tail Studio, the musician's latest release is a vocal concept album collaboration with singer Rekka Katakiri called Kinema in the Hall.

Today Hirota-san allows us the rare opportunity to hear more about his notable contributions to game music.

Square Haven: Yoshitaka Hirota, thank you for talking with us today.

Yoshitaka Hirota: You're welcome. Actually, I would like to thank you also for the opportunity. I can't tell you how glad I am to hear that my music is being enjoyed by listeners in foreign countries. I hope this interview will help fans enjoy my music on a deeper level.

Haven: Please tell us how you began working in the videogame industry as a sound programmer for Square.

Yoshitaka Hirota: When I was around 20 years-old I was having some financial difficulty, and my friend, the composer Yasunori Mitsuda, invited me to apply for the job at Square. At the time, I felt aimless about what kind of work would suit me, so he was tremendously helpful.

Haven: You were involved in the development of a number of classic Square soundtracks, including Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger. What were some of the challenges involved in working with audio on the Super Nintendo?

Yoshitaka Hirota: Given the technical limitations of the game system, I was asked to create many different sounds. By creating simple sinewaves, I managed to simulate noises such as the sound of breaking glass or water flowing through a stream. Though it wasn't easy to accomplish, it was interesting work in terms of getting to understand sound as a physical phenomenon.

Toward the beginning of Final Fantasy VI, there is a scene in which Terra begins screaming in this wild animal voice. That sound was made during an experiment modulating sinewaves. We happened upon this unique sound, and it developed into the voices of various beasts and creatures in later games. In the same way, the creation of robotic voices in Chrono Trigger was done through a speech synthesizer called a vocoder, and was developed into various sound effects later on. To get a good idea of the variety of sounds that we were experimenting with at the time, you might try casting all the summon spells from Final Fantasy IV through VI.

More difficult than the technical challenge of creating these effects was the more abstract problem of defining visuals through custom sounds. For instance, the production staff would ask me, "Can you give us the sound of snow falling serenely from the sky?" The technique of building sounds that instill the mood of on-screen images still informs my musical style to this day.

Haven: During the Playstation era, the Square titles you worked on included Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, and Front Mission 2. Were the expanded sound capabilities of the Sony Playstation able to offer you increased artistic expression?

Yoshitaka Hirota: Naturally, the diversity of what a sound designer was capable of expressing expanded dramatically thanks to the increased waveform capacity of the Playstation. However, even after the hardware was upgraded, the work didn't get much easier. Rather, everything required more time to accomplish. On Final Fantasy VII, it took almost a week in order to make the complicated sound effects of the highest summon spell, Knights of the Round. The more realistic the visual image becomes, the more detailed the accompanying music expression has to be. This applies to the current development of games on the PS3 as well.

I spent a lot of time considering which component parts of the ambient noises and sound effects I was working on should receive the most emphasis. If one is asked to simulate the sound of a running car engine, one must think about how it will sound when the tires are kicking off the ground, and when the car's frame tilts from the resulting changes in its weight distribution. If the scene is there to express a feeling of anxiety, I might want the low tones to resonate. If the scene is set in the severe cold of winter, there needs to be the sound of the frosty wind present on the soundtrack.

So, though the capacity of sound production had increased, on the new console it was still impossible to express the natural phenomenon with complete accuracy. By layering sounds one by one, the combination creates the atmosphere for the scene, which can lend direction to the game's narrative impact. Just by varying a few factors in that way, it is possible for the sound of, say, a running car to be ominous or cheerful to the listener.

Haven: While working as a sound designer at Square, you were living a double life, actively performing live music as a member of a punk band and working as a DJ at night clubs. How did these experiences differ from your day job as a game musician?

Yoshitaka Hirota: Composing music and doing sound design required a lot of sustained concentration. It was necessary to sit in front of the keyboard, maintaining the same posture for a number of hours. To relieve the stress that built up from sitting in one place for so long, I worked as a DJ at clubs. At the live performance, I could move around, get out on the dance floor, have a beer. I enjoyed it. With live performance, whether what you have created is a success or failure, you know when you're done. But when you're writing music, the finished product follows a long period of tension and uncertainty. That's part of the hard work of composing.

Haven: Koudelka was the spiritual predecessor to the Shadow Hearts series of games, and was conceived by a game composer, Hiroki Kikuta. How was it working on this difficult project, and what kind of influence did it have upon the Shadow Hearts trilogy of games?

Yoshitaka Hirota: In creating sound effects for Koudelka, I attempted to tap into the world of Gothic horror. I explored the fear and genuine emotions of the genre through sound. At one point it became necessary to add effects to the image of feet stepping across a pile of bones. So to get the sound just right, I gathered a collection of bones from a meat market. Representing the sound of monsters' limbs as they waved through the air also required special care.

The Shadow Hearts series is not in the mode of Gothic horror like Koudelka. Yet the series retained certain themes, like the expression of the darker side of human instincts that make us shiver in fear. Take for instance Shadow Hearts locations like the village of creatures who feed on humans, the mental asylum, or the theater of From the New World. For my own part, I embarked upon the new series as an entirely novel entity.

Haven: Your first game-related soundtracks as a composer were for Bomberman 64, the Biohazard 2 albums, and Shadow Hearts. On these projects you collaborated with musician Yasunori Mitsuda. How did this lasting partnership come about, and how was the process of working together?

Yoshitaka Hirota: I don't really remember how it came about exactly. We were friends from college, so it was pretty fun working together. We both seem to enjoy each other's music and get along as co-workers. We would go drinking together quite often back then. Lately, since both of us are so busy, we haven't found a chance to work together, unfortunately.

Haven: Various songs found in Shadow Hearts: From the New World are in the style of Native American music. How did you go about creating this type of music?

Yoshitaka Hirota: Even though I wrote about how this project began in the liner notes for the soundtrack to Shadow Hearts: From the New World I thought I would go into it a little here, too. During the game's development, to gather some material that might influence the direction of the music, I made a point of studying the history of cultures originating on the American continent, the history of Native Americans especially.

I came away with the impression that those traditions emphasized certain ideas that are generally deemed less important in contemporary society: for instance, doctrines pertaining to existing harmoniously together with the earth, perceiving and understanding the lessons of the nature, accepting change. Also, the idea that living in the present could actually enable you to come to a greater understanding of who you are, and the ways in which what you might call "life energy" lends shape to our lives. Reading about these cultures offered plenty of hints about where to find an intersection between ritualistic and electronic music.

One sacred phrase that I came across in studying about Native American cultures still stays with me. "I am here because there is an earth and a sun. In the land without light, death is all that remains. You must know that you are here as a result of nature's existence."

Considering the ways in which all things are connected, some powerful musical images came to mind. I then tried to express them using a combination of traditional and contemporary instruments. That served as the inspiration for the world of Shadow Hearts: From the New World.

Haven: How did the Shadow Hearts arranged music project known as near death experience come about, and what were you setting out to accomplish in remixing your songs from the series?

Yoshitaka Hirota: I was very curious about what would come of this project. The idea was to rid myself of all the practical concerns attending the creation of background music and just let my imagination of the Shadow Hearts music expand. I named the album "near death experience." Behind these words is the idea of experiencing a world that is entirely unknown. Within the limited time frame available to us, the collaborators including Yasunori Mitsuda, Kenji Ito and Tomoko Imoto worked according to our own musical sensibilities. It was a source of pride for me to be able to join these composers in working on this album.

As for my own remixes, right before I began the recording session for the album, I went on a trip to Ishigaki island in Okinawa, which is located at Japan's southernmost point. I visited a shrine called Utaki, and in the intense tropical sunshine, I closed my eyes and felt the wind running through the forest and connected with the spirit of nature. The effect was deeply healing and calming to my mind. It was a moving experience, taking this trip.

So I decided that for this album I wanted to create sounds that would have a beginning and an end but otherwise wouldn't be anchored down by a heavy concept of time. "Ala Of Sacrum - Spirit Of The Air" and "Sphere -qu- Sacred Shrine edit" were my attempts to create sounds that were evocative of fantastic paintings. I wanted to elicit images from the listener's imagination like those that appear during the dreamlike waking states just preceding sleep.

Haven: What can you tell us about ICARO? The song appears in three startlingly different arrangements over the course of the Shadow Hearts series and serves to unify the trilogy through a shared musical theme.

Yoshitaka Hirota: I tried to create a variety of arrangements on the theme of ICARO. It seems to me in thinking about this song that it is meant to represent the world of Shadow Hearts. During the initial stages of production we needed a short, yet striking song that could be played along with the demo video. So, I composed this mixture of instinctive and spiritual sounds using these two basic layers of a chorus and metal percussion instruments.

I think that among the musical works in the Shadow Hearts series, ICARO has a special significance. In the opening scene of the first game, the main character is traveling on a train and has a fateful encounter with a female stranger . By using the song for the first time in this scene, I intended to suggest that this is where the story of these two people starts. Were the music more heroic or intense, I believe the choice would not have served to support the storyline.

Later on in the game during important scenes, we used ICARO as a signature to inform the player that this scene is related to the origin of the story. By repeating that pattern, we hoped to imprint upon the player's experience of the scenario an idea of which events were most significant. Looking at the broader story of the series, important scenes took on various shapes, which required multifaceted arrangements of the song. It is founded on a simple series of notes, ABDC#AB, that take on different connotations over time.

In these past years, I must say I've acquired some skills by working through the various arrangements of ICARO. I believe that this piece of music has been very supportive of my flexibility as an arranger.

Haven: Turning now to your work in game music arrangements, you joined a group of distinguished composers in contributing to the Rogue Galaxy Premium Arrange soundtrack, including Yasunori Mitsuda, Kenji Ito, Takayuki Aihara, Yoko Shimomura, and Motoi Sakuraba. Your remix of Tomohito Nishiura's original track brings its own unique interpretation. How did you become involved in this project and what aspects of your style did you wish to bring to the arrangement?

Yoshitaka Hirota: The publisher behind this project requested I contribute to it. They told me I could play with my style of the piece as much as I desired. It sounded like an interesting idea, so I decided to take them up on their offer.

When I was thinking about ideas for arrangements, I felt that no matter what approach I took, something interesting would likely come from the experiment. So, it took me a while to finally decide upon a particular direction for the project. The director proposed two songs to arrange without revealing the name of the song or the nature of the scenes in which it appears in-game. Though both pieces were attractive, I decided on the one that had the potential to be very heavy and extremely loud. It turned out to be the final battle theme. When they told me the title was "ENORMOUS THREAT," suddenly this image sprung to mind and I went right to work on making it a reality.

My feeling was, I wanted the song to have a sense of urgency. There needed to be emphasis on the rhythm and the refrain, and I knew I wanted a woman's powerful voice propelling it forward. It followed from the source material provided by Tomohito Nishiura that I weaved together the particular notes and sounds. Since initially the image was pretty clear in my mind in terms of the chorus and instruments, the process went very smoothly. A few days before the deadline, I concentrated all my attention on mixing, working without sleep. When the project was finally completed I felt satisfied with the results.

Haven: Recently you published the album entitled Kinema in the Hall, which features vocal tracks by Rekka Katakiri. How did this collaboration come about?

Yoshitaka Hirota: The manager of TEAM Entertainment introduced me to Ms. Katakiri. I knew her as the singer of the ending theme of Higurashi no Naku Koro ni, the television animation series, and as a vocalist of the Playstation 2 Atelier series. When I first listened to her self-produced album, I was captivated by her singing talent and presentation, how she expresses herself through music. We were offered the chance to work together, and I became sure that her dark lyrics would suit my music. We got on well from the first meeting. Working with her, I found I did not need to say much, because we both seemed to intuit the right direction for the album without words. It was great feeling, being able to have a conversation purely through music.

Haven: Is there a particular musical idea you wished to express in the album?

Yoshitaka Hirota: In our first meeting, we decided to make this a "dark fantasy" album--a narrative, like a short movie. The introduction was clear to our minds, like a Alice in Wonderland disappearing down the rabbit hole. Why Alice in Wonderland? Well, the night that Rekka was walking back home after meeting with me for this album, while she was thinking about the project, she happened upon an alleyway that was so narrow, probably only one person could squeeze through it. She was very curious about this narrow alley and was wondering where it might lead. So she got out her cellphone and took a picture of it. She took the picture home with her and imagined what might be on the other end, and what she dreamed up was Kinema in the Hall.

The story tells of a boy lost in the city, trying to find his way home. He finds an alley. At the end of the alley, he finds a small door. Out of curiosity, he decides to open it, and steps through, and finds on the other side, a strange girl named "Kinema." Kinema has a movie projector, and she invites the boy to sit down and then she shows him some short movies. All these movies she shows him are somehow related to the hole he walked through, people's fears and their curiosity. The title of the piece might be Kinema in the "Hole." The idea of a hollow inside the imagination got me thinking, and it was the impetus for the music I composed.

Haven: You operate TwinTail Studio. Can you tell us how your own music studio was started, and the kind of projects that are currently emerging from it?

Yoshitaka Hirota: TTS Products is my private production office, and TwinTail Studio is my private studio, where I am assisted by a few trained employees. The studio is continually developing. The way I create music might differ from others, and I find I have to do things by myself. I have to pay great attention to what others might consider insignificant details.

As for upcoming releases, here is what I can tell you. I am collaborating with Noriko Mitose of Cotton in arranging famous old Japanese tunes using electronic sounds. On top of that, I am working again with Rekka Kitakiri on her new album "Hareyakanaru Sora no Yukue." On July 5th, Hana Saku DS Gardening Life for Nintendo DS was released in Japan by Square Enix. For this game, I worked on all the sound production outside of three guitar solo tracks. I have also worked on five music tracks for the Nintendo DS action game, Donkey Kong Jungle Climber. It was released August 9th in Japan. I'm involved in the development of a few other titles, including an RPG.

I recently joined Kenji Ito's band as a bass player for a game music festival "EXTRA ~HYPER GAME MUSIC EVENT 2007." In October, I am planning on doing a gig with Rekka Katakiri. At the moment, I am working on five videogame and vocal album projects, but the rest I am not allowed to speak about.

Haven: Yoshitaka Hirota, thank you for sharing your time with us.

Yoshitaka Hirota: Thank you for your support.

Interview conducted by Jeriaska. Translation by Takahiro Yamamoto, with Kaori Komuro. To find out more about Yoshitaka Hirota, visit his official website, Twintail Studio.


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